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In Show Of Force, U.S. Navy Sends Aircraft Carriers To South China Sea

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Beijing is accusing the U.S. of aggressive action in the South China Sea. The U.S. deployed two Navy carrier strike groups to the region over the weekend. Greg Poling tracks this part of the world closely. He's a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

GREG POLING: Good morning.

MARTIN: Why would the U.S. be carrying out these maneuvers at this particular moment?

POLING: The U.S. has been getting a lot of flak in the region over the last few months about its willingness to still stand up for rights. It got a lot of bad press from China in particular about whether or not it was still capable of carrier operations because of COVID-19. So it wants to show everybody that it's still a Pacific power.

MARTIN: And explain why China finds issue with this in the first place.

POLING: For China, the South China Sea is a Chinese lake, despite what international law might say. And so China was engaging in military activities a few hundred miles away in the Paracel Islands at the same time. The U.S. does this to show China's smaller neighbors - Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia - that we're not going to let them be bullied by China. Beijing doesn't appreciate that.

MARTIN: And how - I mean, how does this fall into the larger relationship right now? I mean, obviously the dynamic between the U.S. and China is tense to say the least, not just because of the politics and the rhetoric around the coronavirus spread, but also the recent law in Hong Kong, in which mainland China now has far more control over the citizenry there.

POLING: Yeah. One of the things that's really stuck out over the last three months or so has been Beijing's hypersensitivity to any criticism amid COVID-19. And so things - whether it's in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Indian border, Hong Kong, Taiwan - China, rather than de-escalate, is doubling down on nationalism. And that leads to just continuing escalation with the U.S. and with its neighbors.

MARTIN: What about U.S. allies in the region? What's been their response to the U.S. deployment and China's reaction to it?

POLING: We haven't seen a lot of response yet directly to these carrier deployments. But over the last few months we've really seen Vietnam, the Philippines, as well as states outside of Southeast Asia, like Australia, Japan, India calling for greater U.S. support. So I think this is - it's certainly not enough, but it's a first step toward reminding the region that the U.S. still has their back.

MARTIN: The waterway, we should say - I mean, it just has huge strategic importance, right? An estimated one-third of global shipping flows through this particular stretch of water. What could be the consequences if tensions there increase?

POLING: We've been in the middle of this years-long campaign by Beijing to start slowly squeezing its neighbors out of the region. So for the U.S. and most of the international community, the biggest concern is that Beijing creates a de facto zone of hegemony in which nobody else can sail or freely operate. You know, the U.S. isn't willing to accept that for a lot of reasons. The problem is that there are no military solutions here. And so if this is all the U.S. has, it's really not nearly sufficient.

MARTIN: Greg Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He joined us on Skype. And we appreciate your time.

POLING: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE LAST SIGHS OF THE WIND'S "PHOBIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.